Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Davidson on Truth (again)

In Truth and Predication Davidson has many interesting things to say about the concept of truth. But I can't help but think that he's missed the forest for the trees.

Davidson writes:

A T-sentence says of a particular speaker that, every time he utters a given sentence, the utterance will be true if and only if certain conditions are satisfied. T-sentences thus have the form and function of natural laws; they are universally quantified bi-conditionals, and as such are understood to apply counterfactually and to be confirmed by their instances. Thus, a theory of truth is a theory for describing, explaining, understanding, and predicting a basic aspect of verbal behavior. (54)


I like that passage quite a lot: particularly the (daring, I think) idea that T-sentences are like natural laws.

But the rest of the chapter doesn't quite live up to this passage. For the rest of the chapter, for some 20 pages, Davidson shows how the concept of truth is useful in situations of radical interpretation. But much of that discussion has the feeling of a just-so story. For example:

The interpreter, on noticing that the agent regularly accepts or rejects the sentence 'The coffee is ready' when the coffee is or is not ready, will (however tentatively pending related results) try for a theory of truth that says that an utterance by an agent of the sentence 'The coffee is ready' is true if and only if the coffee can be observed by the agent to be ready at the time of the utterance. (63)


Well, yes, I guess so. But that scenario is so contrived, so wildly different from how languages are actually learned, from how truth really comes in useful, that it distorts what is really most important about the concept of truth: namely, that true beliefs are beliefs that work. Now, one way they work is, undoubtedly, that they allow for communication and understanding - and I think this is what Davidson is getting at. But I don't think that is the most important aspect of truth's working, and I think it distracts from the broader usefulness of true beliefs.

Telling these sorts of genetic stories about the origin of the usefulness of truth seems to commit something like a philosopher's fallacy. Philosophers might be most interested in how truth and truth theories are connected with broader issues of inter-translatability, etc. But that's just a conceit, and it misses how truth is grounded in much more mundane and realistic sorts of interactions with the world, and with each other.

In short, we don't need the concept of truth for the narrow reason that it (somehow) assists us in imputing the belief "the coffee is ready" to someone whose language we are trying to learn. Rather, the concept of truth has much more obvious value in assisting us when we are communicating with someone whose language we already share. For example, when someone we think we know well does something surprising or apparently bizarre: "Why did Jones do X? Because he thought Y was true." That's when the concept of truth comes in useful, not in the scenarios Davidson describes.

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